How to Format for Submissions

Formatting your manuscript for submission can be challenging task, but this guide should help make some sense of it.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

You’ve got your manuscript ready to be sent off to publishers or agents. You find the person/people you want to send it off to and you start writing your email.


It’s important that you follow the submission guidelines that the people you’re sending to have set. They will have their own requirements for formatting that need to be followed. If you don’t, they’ll throw it straight into the bin. So check their submission guidelines. Follow them to the letter. If they want your manuscript to be sent one letter at a time in a weird font that you have to download from their site, do it. (Okay, don’t do that because that’s really weird and dodgy but you know what I mean.) If they don’t have guidelines, ask. Send them an email or give them a ring. They may not have any and could be open to any formatting you want. Double check though before you send anything. However, most of the guidelines will be similar and we’ll have a look at what my general advice would be for formatting.


The first thing I’m going to touch upon here is the difference between a Rich Text Editor and a Plain Text Editor. Rich text editors are your fancy ones. They allow you to manipulate practically everything in your document and things like apostrophes and speech marks get the correct orientation automatically. Microsoft Word and Open Office are good examples of a rich text editor. Plain text editors are ones that allow you to change your font and that’s about it. Notepad is a plain text editor. This is important because there are certain writing tools out there that write in what amounts to a fancy plain text editor. Evernote, for instance, uses a plain text editor for your writing. In general, it won’t have the formatting tools you need to ready your piece for submission. They’re fine for writing and development in, but when you’re ready it’s best to copy it into a rich text editor. Wordpad is actually a good tool for this. It’s pretty basic but it comes inbuilt if you’re using a Windows computer. I believe that iWork is a suitable equivalent if you’re on a Mac.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s look at your options for your writing/formatting needs. Personally, I like MS Word. There are also Open Office, LibreOffice, and many others if you’re looking for a free alternative. They don’t do everything that Word can do, but they’re pretty close. Word can be easily installed on Windows or Mac and Open Office has a Linux build thrown in there too.

Now that you’ve got your tools in place, what’s next?

File Type

Your file type is quite important. Word released a new file type for their system back in the 2007 version of Office, I think. The .docx instead of the old .doc. More and more people are using .docx now but, if you have an older version of Word, or a programme that hasn’t kept up with the times, it won’t be able to read your file. Open Office defaults to a .odt file. You can save as a .doc or .docx, but that’s not the default. Word can read .odts but when the programme the publisher/agent has opens your file, you run the risk of it messing with your formatting. It probably won’t happen, the conversion errors normally come from more graphical things in your document, but it happens. Even in Word. There are times that I’ve saved a .docx as a .doc and the amount of things that have moved are ridiculous. So make sure that your file type is right and in line with what the people want. They may want a .pdf, which Word and Open Office can create in the Save As option.

Normally, they’ll ask for a .doc, sometimes a .docx will be presented as an option.


Usually, people are pretty standard with margins. Your ‘Normal’ setting under margins will be perfectly fine. However, make sure that you’re on that setting for your document and that it’s in line with what they want. They may say something like “Your margins must be between 1cm and 3cm.” But if you keep that at ‘Normal’ you’re probably going to be okay.

Line Spacing

One and a half or double spacing is normally what is required. Double is more common but I have seen both being requested. However, there is also a setting next to that to say how much extra space to put in when you press the enter key. It will have a before and an after setting. Other than that, Word doesn’t seem to have a name for it, but it’s in the ‘Spacing’ section. Set both of these to 0. In general, it’s good practice too so that you cut down on wasted space, because what that does is it adds whatever you’ve set there onto your double or one and a half spacing.

Sometimes you are asked to add a blank line between paragraphs. If this isn’t stated then don’t do it, but if it is then make sure you do!

Indent and Justify

You should be indenting the first line of your paragraphs, unless asked otherwise, but don’t do it with spaces or even using the tab key. Use the paragraph settings so that the indents are formatted and not an add-on.

Incidentally, I was taught when I studied creative writing that when you have a line break, you don’t indent the first word there. But I have seen it both ways in published books so check with the submission guidelines.

There shouldn’t be any other indent when you’re writing. Your text should be aligned to the left so that that side looks like a straight line, other than your paragraph indents.

Headers and Footers

Your header and footer contain vital information that shouldn’t be omitted. As with everything else, check what the people you are submitting to want. But you need to include your details; at a bare minimum your name but you may be asked to put full contact details there too (address, phone, email). You need your copyright notice too. There needs to be some way for the person on the other end to identify what they are reading. So title, author name and page number. That way, if they decide to print off your 800 page manuscript but they drop one page, they can very easily put it back where it belongs. Also, top left is normally where people staple or otherwise join a printed manuscript together, so leave that side blank if you can.

Standard formatting that is often cited requests the writer’s surname, title, and page number in the top right of the header. Other places ask for the full writer name, title, word count, page number and total number of pages in the footer. It completely depends on where you are sending it, but as a rule if it is not stated then pick one of those and be consistent.

The submission guidelines will usually give you a very detailed breakdown of where things need to be, and what they need to be, in your header and footer. Also, keep your first page different than the rest. Your first page is your cover page and should be free of headers and footers.

Cover Page

My personal information and real name is included in the cover page. However, I chop and change this around as required. The people you are submitting to will let you know what they want on a cover page. It’s usually the title between a third and half way down the page, centred with your name centred on the line below. This will also be, usually, where you put all of your official information. Your registered address, you real name if you’re not writing under that. Because you have different headers and footers for your first page, you can put your copyright and address, with your contact information, on this cover page.


You need to include your copyright on your submission. If you’re writing under a pseudonym you should include this in your private copyright. Your private copyright, what you send to the publisher or agent, will look something like this:

© 2017 A Name—A pseudonym of Jane Janeson

What will be displayed to the public on my work is just –

© 2017 A Name

What you can do, and probably should be doing, is put the full and extended copyright with real name on the cover page, the other pages you can put the shortened one in either the header or footer.


You should be using either Times New Roman or Courier for your manuscript. They’re standard and easy to read. And everyone has them. If you’re using some advance font that you downloaded, or even just some of the ones that come with Word, and the person you’re submitting to doesn’t have the font, they will not be able to read your work. They’re not going to download one for your submission. So, Times New Roman or Courier. Size 12 unless specified otherwise.

Paper and Print

If you’re sending in a hard copy of your manuscript, make sure that you’re printing it on white paper with a black font. If you’re submitting a digital copy, don’t add a fancy background or border to your pages or have a colour to your text. Just keep it black on white. It’s easy for them to read.

Final Tips

Check with their submission guidelines.

Do what they say.

Check again, but this time check your work against their guidelines. Go through the list one by one and double check it’s in and correct.

Check again.

Give it five minutes to an hour so that your brain refreshes a little.

Check again.

I know that it seems a bit over the top. But they will more than likely instantly bin your work if you don’t follow their guidelines. Or you do something odd or out of the ordinary. They’ll just get rid of it. And none of us want that. It is worth setting up a template document. Do all the stuff that needs to go in and save it as Blank Manuscript or something. When you want to start a new project, open that and click Save As. What that does, rather than overwriting your template, creates a new file with all of the old stuff in place. It’s a time saver, really. Do it once and then you just need to check it against the guidelines and do a few tweaks.

But, most importantly, have fun and good luck!

Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.

Join the Discussion

Please ensure all comments abide by the Thanet Writers Comments Policy

Add a Comment